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Ethnic Violence Flares in Congo

Fresh fighting has erupted in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with rival ethnic Hema militias battling each other. Meanwhile hundreds of kilometers further south in South Kivu province, an escalation of attacks by Congo-based Rwandan Hutu rebels on local civilians has put additional pressure on the United Nations mission in Congo to increase its deployment there.

Around 350 heavily armed militiamen belonging to the principle ethnic Hema militia, the UPC, launched an attack on Friday on the town of Tchomia, some 30 kilometers southeast of Ituri's capital, Bunia, near the coast of Lake Albert, an area believed to be rich in oil deposits.

They clashed with their rival Hema group, PUSIC, based in the Tchomia area, until some 150 United Nations troops were dispatched to break up the fighting and send both groups to villages in opposite direction.

The violence in Ituri comes only weeks after the United Nations began its permanent deployment outside of Bunia. Some 4,000 of the 5,000 U.N. troops mandated for Ituri have arrived in Bunia, although the deployment has so far been based within a 60-kilometer radius of the provincial capital.

Ituri has been the scene of conflict since 1999 that has claimed more than 50,000 lives, a war within Congo's wider war. Armed ethnic Hema and Lendu militias have been backed by Rwanda, the former government of Congo and factions within the Ugandan army in their bid to dominate the mineral-rich district, with its wealth of gold, diamonds and coltan.

U.N. troops took over in September from French troops, who had been sent there to secure the town from an increase in violence.

The situation several hundred kilometers further south in South Kivu province is also a major and increasing source of concern. A U.N. force of 1,500 soldiers is mandated for both North and South Kivu, Maniema and Katanga, an area three or four times the size of Ituri. A single company of U.N. troops have been placed permanently in South Kivu province.

In the past few days, U.N. sources have reported escalating attacks by FDLR Rwandan Hutu rebels, still based in eastern Congo, after they had fled across from Rwanda following their involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

FDLR attacks in South Kivu have been increasing in recent days, with towns and villages reported systematically pillaged. Their leaders are unhappy that their old allies, tribal Mai Mai fighters, who are now part of the new national military set-up following Congo's peace deal in July, have ditched them.

Throughout South Kivu, Mai Mai brigade leaders have been drawing up plans for mixed patrols with brigade leaders of their old enemy, the RCD-Goma rebel movement, backed by Rwanda.

But FDLR, who fought alongside Mai Mai against RCD-Goma during the war and who were backed by the former government, remain heavily infiltrated into Mai Mai territory. Better armed and more disciplined than the Mai Mai, their leaders have vowed never to return to Rwanda.